Chris: When the State Theatre opened in Sioux Falls in 1926, it was instantly a top tier venue for both movies and live performances. Built with unusually ornate architecture and a Wurlitzer theater organ, it had the look and feel of the big city movie palaces of the day.
Now, it had a good run, but by the 1980s, it was clear that the State Theatre couldn't compete with shopping mall multiplex theaters offering more modern amenities. The theater did close in 1991 after 65 years of operation, but a citizen's group set out to restore that old theater, and the work is nearly finished. The State Theater is once again open for business.
Here to tell us more about the past and the present of the Sioux Falls State Theatre is Allison Weiland, the theater's executive director. Allison, welcome to In the Moment.
Allison Weiland: Hi, thanks for having me on.
Chris: What do you know or what do we know I should say? Let's go back to the 1920s. This theater was built by M.L. Finkelstein and I.H. Ruben. Were they ahead of their time in the day, or they just had these big minds, didn't they?
Allison Weiland: They did. And they had many movie palaces throughout the Midwest, including in Minneapolis.
Chris: So over the weekend, the State Theatre reopened. Tell us how it went. Take us back to when the doors opened and people were coming in to watch White Christmas.
Allison Weiland: Oh, man. It was just amazing. We have been waiting and preparing for this moment for so long.
People walking in, their faces just lit up. All these memories came back. We were hearing stories about first dates, and people who used to work there, and all kinds of hilarious stories. But really watching them take in the restoration and all the details of the work that's been done. That's priceless. That's why we've been working so hard.
Chris: What did it take to get the theater restored? It's been a long, long process.
Allison Weiland: Yeah. These are big projects. The State Theatre is 24,000 square feet. And we had a full basement with tunnel systems. There's a manager's apartment on the third floor. This is a big, big space. We were able to get a lot of the safety things that needs to be installed throughout the theater. These are very expensive and not very fun to fundraise for. Sprinkler systems, HVAC units. But the part that you can really see is the restored stencil work, the plaster, the chandeliers. All the things that made the State Theatre stand out in its day is even more unique and ornate now.
Chris: Now, I haven't been in the State Theatre for a while, and if I have my memory serves, there's two levels. Are both levels open or just the main floor for now?
Allison Weiland: Just the main level. We will still be fundraising to get the balcony open. I know it would be so great to watch a movie from the balcony. So we'll still be fundraising for that space and a third floor as well. We have hopes and dreams of possibly opening a micro cinema on that third floor. So there's still work to be done.
Chris: Now, February 13th of 1940, it was announced that Gone with the Wind was coming to the State Theatre. Now, back several months ago now I heard that that was going to be the first movie shown when the State Theatre opened up. Now, that changed because White Christmas was the first movie, correct?
Allison Weiland: Yes.
Chris: Now what made you change your mind? Because Gone with the Wind was supposed to be the first one played, or did I hear that incorrectly?
Allison Weiland: Well, yeah, that was definitely tossed around. It's also very, very long. We knew we wanted to get people in and out of the theater, too, to be able to see, especially with COVID and everything happening in our really reduced capacity. And that is a very, very long movie, but the photos I've seen from the 1940 of the people around the block waiting to get in are just so iconic.
Chris: Funny you say how long that movie is because my wife is a huge Gone with the Wind fan, and the first time she sat me down to watch that movie ... Backstory, I don't sit down real well to watch movies, and I got to the intermission, I'm like, what? There's more? But I'll never forget it. I'll never, ever forget.
Now this is such a cool, iconic building. Downtown Sioux Falls. One of the first things I saw when I moved here in the early nineties. I'm not from Sioux falls, but I moved here in the early nineties. I remember seeing the marquee lit up. Now, the present day marquee isn't what we know it to be back in the early days, but it's really close, right?
Allison Weiland: Yes. The original marquee was actually vertical in the 1940s. We found that they wanted the lights, the flashing like Vegas style. So they incorporated the marquee that we know, and I think it's become iconic in itself. I think it stands out. You search "Sioux Falls, South Dakota," and it's one of the first images that pops up.
So we take a lot of pride in our marquee. We just upgraded it to all LEDs. It's been repainted. It looks so sharp.
Chris: Interestingly enough, it was in the mid-1950s that a major motion picture had a world premier at the state theater in downtown Sioux Falls. It was a movie called The Last Hunt, and it was actually filmed in western South Dakota. Are you familiar with that?
Allison Weiland: Yes. We actually have ticket stubs, and a program, and a handful of photos from their parties that they have while they were here. So some great history there.
Chris: Now, the Sioux Falls Film Society purchased the State Theatre in 2001. Four years later, the Sioux Falls State Theatre Company purchased it from them. It kind of went through different owners all during its renovation phase, correct?
Allison Weiland: Yeah. There's been a handful of individuals that have put a lot of time and effort into the process of getting the State Theatre open. It's a big project. We're a nonprofit organization and I really think that's what it took. Whether people are volunteering their time or their treasure, it's taken a whole community to get this theater up and running again.
Chris: Maybe let's speculate for just a moment, if you will, because I'm curious because I just don't like this word, but the State Theatre closed in the early nineties due to disinterest, and that word just bothers me. And, of course, the people spread out, probably getting out of downtown Sioux Falls. As we mentioned, the malls were opening and things like that. Why was there disinterest in a theater?
Allison Weiland: The State Theatre story is a very familiar throughout all of the US. Many of these movie palaces, it was a single screen theater. People really wanted to go to the mall. Things were moving away from downtowns. They're moving to shopping malls with the multiplexes, and these single screen theaters were big. They're large. Many of them needed to have air conditioning and all of these things to adapt to modern needs, and they just couldn't afford it at the time. So they had no choice but to close down.
Chris: Now, you've reopened during a pandemic. That in itself is a feat. You've renovated. You're reopening during a pandemic. How are you handling that?
Allison Weiland: We wanted to give people the opportunity to come and see the theater with construction completed. We are limiting our capacity, so when you reserve your seats, it blocks off the seats in front, to the either direction, and behind you. And we have the big, nice recliner feet, so it is a lot of space. Masks are required unless you're eating or drinking. We are cleaning the theater thoroughly after each performance, and we're taking precautions that our concessions. We're being as safe as we possibly can.
Chris: What's the seating capacity on the main floor given ... Let's say the pandemic's not with us. How many people can you seat currently?
Allison Weiland: Yeah. 165 is what we have on our main floor.
Chris: 165. And sold out completely for White Christmas. Now, White Christmas, that run is over or is there another showing coming up?
Allison Weiland: Nope. That runs over. We'll announce new programming each week. We open on Thursday again with It's a Wonderful Life.
Chris: I've also heard that Home Alone is going to show, too.
Allison Weiland: Yeah, that was this weekend. It was so great to see the kids watching it in the theater. It was wonderful.
Chris: I don't know where I've been. If I'd have known Home Alone was ... That's one of my favorite movies of all time. And here I sit. I missed the boat on that one.
Allison Weiland: Yeah. That was just restored to 4k, and we have this awesome 4k laser projector. It looked beautiful. It sounded great. And, of course, just being in the State Theatre setting is magical in itself.
Chris: I remember walking in there, I can't exactly remember when it was, but it just had that old time theater feel when you walked in. And next thing you know, the box office was just kind of enough for one person, and they did the concessions. I can't imagine what it looks like now. I'm anxious to see it.
Allison Weiland: Yeah. We're using our box office as it was originally intended. And I have to tell you, it's so great to be able to talk to people as they're passing by. These theater builders and operators knew what they were doing with their marketing, with being able to have that face right there on the front of their building.
Chris: Now, back in the early nineties, I did not know this so maybe you know more about it. You can kind of delve into it a little further, but the State Theatre survived a major fire that actually burned down an adjacent building.
Allison Weiland: Yeah. The Harold's Building right next door. That is very interesting. A lot of people remember it, especially the firefighters who were kind of stationed at the State Theatre to really save it. It is really incredible and quite a tragedy that that building burned down.
Chris: We have a couple of minutes left, but let me ask you, what's next for the downtown Sioux Falls State Theatre now that you've reopened, if you will?
Allison Weiland: Yeah. We're going to be having programming every week, Thursday through Sunday with multiple showings on the weekend. We're going to have a family series. We're going to be testing the waters with all kinds of genres, and art film, and classics, and see kind of what sticks. It's exciting to be able to do this programming side of it.
We're also always looking for volunteers to help us usher, and do concessions, and scan tickets. So we have a lot of growth. We're just raising the curtain on another act. There is a lot of room to grow.
Chris: In the minute we have left, we're talking with Allison Weiland, Executive Director of the State Theatre in downtown Sioux Falls. Throw some titles at us. What movies can people expect in the coming weeks?
Allison Weiland: Yeah. Well, right now, we have It's a Wonderful Life. We're also going to be showing Love Actually, which is one of my favorite Christmas movies, and Jingle Jangle, which is actually a big holiday musical spectacle that's going to look fantastic on the big screen. And that's a great family film. And then we're also going to be showing Krampus, which is a holiday horror-comedy film. That's a 10:00 PM showing on Saturday night, and there's still tickets available, but I was very surprised at the interest in Krampus.
Chris: So I assume you get tickets online? Can you get tickets walking up as well, or are you better off getting them online?
Allison Weiland: Just with our reduced capacity, I would encourage people to get tickets online, but our box office will be open for walk-up or calls on Fridays. And any time that we're open on a weekend, you can stop in and purchase a ticket.
Chris: That's Allison Weiland, the Executive Director of the State Theatre in downtown Sioux Falls. Exciting. Your time is appreciated. Thank you so much.
Allison Weiland: Oh, thanks, Chris.